When Petey got sober at 25, he was going to AA meetings, group therapy sessions and individual therapy, but he just couldn’t shake feelings of depression. The 40-year-old struggled mostly with something called anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure, which is a common side effect of recovery.
Then his buddy, an MMA fighter interested in alternative medicine, suggested something unusual. He sent him to a woman in Washington, D.C. who had previously been a medical doctor in China, but was now practicing acupuncture out of her basement. At first, he was skeptical. He didn’t believe in the mystical aspects of Eastern medicine, and after spending a lot of time as an atheist in AA, he was burnt out on conversations around a “higher power.” “But this lady, she didn’t really do any of that,” Petey tells me. “I don’t think she mentioned anything about spirituality or religion even once.”
Instead, his acupuncturist hooked him up to electrodes on a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS unit, which sent electrical currents through his body to stimulate endorphins and relieve pain. Next, he laid down on a table in his boxers and let her poke him with needles in his wrist, chest, stomach, lower back, shins and ankles.
After his first session, he recalls walking around feeling more clearheaded. “Part of that could’ve just been that I’d been lying on a table for an hour,” Petey says. But over the next few weeks, he noticed whatever benefits he wanted to write off as a placebo effect seemed to stick. “I did seem more chill, there was less anxiety about things, less depression,” he says. And most importantly, it appeared to help with his inability to get excited about anything, mostly because he looked forward to going back to acupuncture.
Petey was surprised by the impact that these tiny blunt needles and electric shocks had on his mental state, but practitioners have been advocating for acupuncture as a supplemental treatment for many mental-health issues for some time. Tom Ingegno, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, has found that acupuncture is significantly effective for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. “While it cannot replace mental-health practitioners and, when necessary, pharmaceutical interventions, it offers several methods of action that can greatly improve mental-health outcomes,” he explains.
As for how acupuncture works, per Eastern medicine, energy (otherwise known as Qi) is supposed to flow throughout healthy bodies. However, traumatic events, unhealthy lifestyle choices and prolonged stress can all result in blockages of this energy, and eventually lead to mental and physical illness. “Classically, acupuncturists would refer to any mental-health issue as an imbalance of the spirit,” Ingegno explains.
From a more Western perspective, acupuncture improves our ability to regulate our autonomic nervous systems — namely, the capacity to shift out of fight-or-flight mode and into rest-and-digest mode. “Getting people out of their sympathetic nervous system and into their parasympathetic mode is the key to allowing the body to heal itself,” Ingegno notes. During this time, neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and anandamide flood the brain. “All of these compounds help patients achieve optimal brain chemistry and can give long-term solutions to mental-health issues.”
When acupuncturists insert needles into your body, the prick sends a message to the brain to increase blood flow, which increases circulation to relieve further pain. “This not only carries fresh blood to the area but carries out inflammation and metabolic waste,” Ingegno says. Which is great for physical pain, but it also plays a role in emotional health by increasing circulation to the brain. “More oxygen and nutrients make the brain function better and allow it to better handle stress,” he continues.
A review of more than 200 studies supports Ingegno’s claims, indicating that acupuncture effectively supports better nervous system regulation by stimulating the vagus nerve and other anti-inflammatory pathways.
For patients like Petey struggling with their mental health, most acupuncturists would take a holistic approach. In other words, Ingegno and fellow practitioner Elizabeth Trattner wouldn’t just start poking a new patient and send them on their way. They’d ask about what they’re eating, how they’re sleeping and about any relationship or work stress in their lives. To Trattner, that’s the most significant difference between acupuncture and other inventions — the inclusiveness of anything else that might help. “Unlike Western medicine, Chinese medicine and acupuncture takes into account a patient’s whole being, and we address the entire body, including the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing,” she explains.
Looking back, Petey says his acupuncturist was so holistic with her approach she almost seemed psychic. Once, he had a few slices of cake at an AA meeting as part of a sober anniversary celebration before going to his acupuncture session. His practitioner immediately called him out on it. “I didn’t have any icing on my face or nothing,” he says. That’s when he really started to let go of his skepticism. “I couldn’t tell if there was something going on in my body that tipped her off. It was so weird.”
Today, with 15 years of sobriety under his belt, Petey remembers how hard therapy was when he first started it. The process often left him feeling drained, vulnerable, and at times, ashamed and embarrassed. On plenty of occasions, it left him wanting to drink. Acupuncture, on the other hand, was just something he had to show up to, which was a relief in comparison. “It’s a little ironic,” he says, because though he was lying half-naked on a table as a woman treated him like a pincushion, “it somehow felt less vulnerable.”